Friday, July 24, 2009

Shanghai, Our Most Fascinating Stop

Hong Kong was our half-way point on the 65-day voyage home, and we started with a 60-hour sail north from there over calm seas to amazing Shanghai. We were not at all prepared for its mix of modernity and heritage, massive skyscrapers and delicate gardens, and bustle, bustle, bustle.

We woke up to a front-row seat on the Huangpu River, only 15 minutes on foot to the Bund, the riverfront collection of what was the most impressive collection of western architecture in Asia when it went up in the early 20th century. It was hard to appreciate the Bund just now, however, as there is a massive reconstruction project in full swing to turn the traffic-jammed street into a boulevard.
Indeed, there were massive projects everywhere, though one project that remained unseen by us just around another bend or two of the river is dominating Shanghai these days, the construction of the site for Expo 2010,
expected to be the largest world's fair ever in attendance. Seeing the immense crowds in Shanghai over a year ahead of that date, it's obvious they will do well just attracting a portion of this mob. Although the fair site was unseen, we did see "Haibao," the Fair Mascot, everywhere.

We had two days to explore and the rare chance for an evening event, so we joined friends Jerry and Sandy for a taxicab ride to a box office, to buy tickets for tonight of an acrobatic show reputed to be outstanding. It was, as we'll show below.
We set a time to meet for dinner and headed out in different directions. The two of us started by exploring Nanjing Road, Shanghai's most famous street. From temples to streetscapes, it was full of life. Like so many other places in Shanghai, it was a mix of 19th and early 20th century with early 21st century, with few visible traces of the intervening decades.

Without knowing a word of Chinese, we somehow managed to figure out how much
it cost to take the subway a few stops -- about 40 cents -- and how to actually do it. It was quite modern, and even had video ads running inside the subway cars! There are several lines criss-crossing town, and we ended up using them several times in our two days.

There are no tall hills to climb for a view of the city, our usual default option for a new city, so we went to Plan B, a walk on the Huangpu River.
It was full of life, probably the busiest waterway we've ever seen, busier even than New York Harbor, Tokyo Harbor, the Mississippi at New Orleans, the St. Lawrence Seaway, or any of the myriad other busy places we could think of. Indeed, only Sydney Harbor near the Opera House with its swarms of ferry boats comes close. The area across the river behind that floating billboard is Pudong and is home to most of the newest skyscrapers in town, including the Shanghai World Financial Center, with it's odd opening near the top. Original plans were for the hole to be circular, to reduce wind pressure and to symbolize the moon. But for too many people it looked rather like the rising sun, a traumatic symbol still in this area, so the circle became a trapezoid. It's 101 stories and 1600' tall and, for the moment, is the second-tallest building in the world!

We next headed inland through a park dense with bamboo to a neighborhood curiously called Chinatown. Right, in Shanghai China. For 107 years prior to the Communist takeover in 1949, central Shanghai was carved up into so-called foreign "concessions," areas where British, French, Americans and finally Japanese acquired enclaves of sovereignty from the weak Chinese government. Just outside the concessions was an area the foreigners went to for Chinese goods and services, hence the name "Chinatown."

It was a mix of genuinely atmospheric streets filled with noodle-makers, two-wheeled delivery and curbside games of Mah-Jongg, and then a block or two away Disney-like sections that were not only gorgeous but also, as you can see, wildly popular with Chinese tourists.

After walking through this wall of humanity we came to a little opening to Yu Yuan Gardens, and what a transformation! Built from 1559-1579, they were enchanting. We'll let the photos show you how much.

As we walked back to the theater we encountered three charming art students with equally impressive skills both in English and in Marketing. Somehow we found ourselves cajoled -- "shanghaied" you might say -- into a nearby art gallery where their provincial college of art had their works on display. They were good, again both as artists and as salespeople, and it was with great difficulty that we limited ourselves to just one purchase, the watercolor of the Great Wall that we visit three days from now.

At last it was dinner time, and the restaurant we chose did not disappoint us or our friends Sandy and Jerry.

Although we had walked a dozen miles through town, the performance afterward was so lively that we had no trouble staying awake. Profound it wasn't, but it was fascinating to see these performers push the limits of balance and gravity.

That should have been the end of a terrific day, but Shanghai wasn't done with us yet. As we stepped out on deck back on the Volendam, a light show unfolded for us, with a procession of one colorful boat after another, and the 1500-foot-high Pearl Tower changing color every few seconds. Yes, Shanghai is another world!

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, and we spent part of our second day back on Nanjing Road, this time actually going into the department stores. They were as nice as any Nordstroms, with attractive displays, clear prices and salespeople who were quick to help but equally quick to back off if you were "just looking." Louise never did find the perfect item, but Jeff did add to his sweater vest collection with a nice argyle in Merino wool for under $40. For lunch we passed on the street vendors for a real restaurant, and enjoyed this scrumptious eggplant dish with its elegant presentation but wondered about the rest of the menu, or perhaps the person who translated it into English, for some of the other offerings:
embryo milk tea juice; olive vinegar drink; coix seeds & yam milky drink; asiatic ginseng with young pigeon soup; fried chicken gristle with chili; fried cartilege; Italian noodles (vanilla flavor); clam and frog; fried monlithic beef; and the always popular fried tofu with wooden fish. Yum, wish we had the time to sample them all!

Our final destination was the antique market, two streets that form an L shape and are filled with tourist trinkets and a few decent antiques, plus piles upon piles of the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao's Sayings, in any language you might care to read them in. But for the nearby high rises, it was easy to imagine being in the China of our grandparents day in these streets.

That evening we had an exciting departure, as our massive ship had to move backwards a few kilometers down the Huangpu to get to a place both wide enough and away from the tour boat traffic to turn around. Boats constantly passed to either side of us until the critical moment, when the harbor police halted all traffic for our maneuver. Half-way around, we had all of 50 meters, half a football field, to each shore! Then we had to fit under a bridge at just the right point in the tide to have two meters under the hull and 1.4 meters (less than Louise's height!) above the highest point on the boat. The top deck was crowded with passengers who sucked air in unison as we slid under at the predicted distance.
An hour and a half after setting out, we slid past the last of Shanghai's urban sprawl and into the great Yangtze, not far from where it flows into the Yellow Sea.

As we sailed on we thought back on Shanghai, on its architects who build in every shape but rectangular,
on its traffic (yup, that's nine lanes going in one direction), on its modernity and westernization, such as this shot of the Shanghai Music Hall advertising its current hit, High School Musical.

As the 18th century was to the French, the 19th to the British and the 20th to the Americans, the 21st century may well be to the Chinese. That's how Shanghai left us feeling, and our next stop of Beijing did nothing to change that. We'll tell you about that in our next entry.

1 comment:

Jim Schoepflin said...

As always, a terrific job of describing your many explorations in a captivating manner. We enjoyed!